Guest Essay: The demise of NYU’s sustainability major

Students in the Sustainable Urban Environments major have been left in the dark by administration, while professors are hard at work fighting to keep sustainability a part of the curriculum.

Two+people+walk+past+an+entrance+of+an+building+used+by+N.Y.U%E2%80%99s+Tandon+School+of+Engineering.

Samson Tu

(Samson Tu for WSN)

Elaine Ly

Elaine Ly is a mechanical engineering student at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering.

After almost a year of little to no communication, students in the Sustainable Urban Environments major at the Tandon School of Engineering have seemingly lost all hope that their major will continue to exist. Many professors are working tirelessly to weave lessons in sustainability throughout many engineering curricula. Each one I talked to exuded a passion for the field. Some dream of one day leaving Tandon to become urban planners or designers, while others hope to inspire their students to transform industries that are polluting our world.

Toward the end of the fall 2021 semester, Sustainable Urban Environments students received the following notification: “Please Note: Applicants are no longer being accepted for this program.” Environmental engineering as a major was said to be a remedy, but there have been little to no updates about the issue since then.

NYU needs to do better when it comes to teaching sustainability, while treating its faculty better in the process. 

“You have to be asleep to not see sustainability as a critical issue in our time,” said Richard Wener, who was co-director of the SUE program and is presently a professor emeritus.

Wener and his colleagues developed a major that combined the technical, scientific and policy aspects of sustainability. It was geared towards urban environments, because “urban is where most of the problems and most of the solutions will come from.” Although the major struggled to attract students in the first few years of its conception, after Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn merged with NYU in 1973, people from all across the United States were drawn to SUE.

NYU trying to get rid of the major is a really bad setback for the school.”

— Kaylynn Yamanashi, a senior in the Sustainable Urban Environments major

According to Wener, the major was made to be small-scale by intent, capping enrollment to 25 students. Additionally, unlike other majors, SUE does not have a dedicated floor. It also lacks full-time faculty — after Wener’s retirement, only an associate professor and associate vice provost remained, with the rest of the professors being adjuncts.

In the fall 2022 semester, the union representing NYU’s adjunct faculty, threatened to strike if the university did not raise wages, offer more educational resources and enforce job security, among other demands. It was not until the union’s contract expired that the university and union came to a compromise. SUE is not the only major taught by mostly adjuncts; the music education program at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development is as well. Similar to SUE, the major stopped accepting applicants in fall 2022. It will close completely in fall 2023.

“When all of the professors are adjuncts, there’s much less success in guiding students outside of work hours,” Ricardo Sheler, a junior in the SUE program, said.

SUE was the reason Sheler even applied to NYU, believing that the program raised “great critical thinkers about social issues.”

After Wener’s retirement in January 2020, assistant professor Alice Reznickova was hired under a five-year contract as the new director. But in the August following NYU’s announcement on the future of SUE, Reznickova resigned without anyone to replace her. As of today, the current SUE advisor, James Lewis, doesn’t even specialize in sustainability, but rather humanistic psychology. As a result, many students have felt deterred from asking about career prospects in sustainability.

“I gained empathy and compassion for the environment and people around me,” said a senior majoring in SUE and minoring in Science and Technology Studies.

As someone who was close to the former director, and aware of Reznickova’s plans for the major, they were confused as to why a major that meant so much to them was being canceled.

“NYU trying to get rid of the major is a really bad setback for the school,” said Kaylynn Yamanashi, another senior in SUE.

Yamanashi is also pursuing a minor in Urban Design and Architecture Studies from NYU’s College of Arts & Science. Although the Urban Design and Architecture Studies program shares some similarities with SUE, it focuses more on the theoretical side of urban planning, rather than the technical. Moreover, the lessons in SUE are contextualized better just by being located at an engineering school.

All three students enjoyed the major’s approachability and relatively light workload. They liked the professors and SUE’s flexibility, which allowed them to explore different courses in a way a traditional engineering curriculum couldn’t. Like many of their peers, however, they were frustrated and uncertain about their future.

In a virtual town hall attended by SUE students, questions about what to do if future employers questioned the validity of the SUE program were left unanswered. Career resources and reassurance were not given.

When Sheler asked, “How does this decision fit into the actual goals toward … making an engineering school that’s sustainability focused,” the response lacked depth and elaboration.

“From my perspective, it seems like they’re just beating around the bush, but it seems like they’re set on getting rid of the major,” Yamanashi said.

I hope at one point we don’t have to call it the Sustainable Engineering Initiative, I hope that we could just call it engineering.”

— Miguel Modestino, associate professor of chemical engineering at NYU Tandon

In my own senior-year capstone design class for mechanical engineering, sustainability was merely shoved in as a topic. I can’t recall a time when a professor had ever gone over it in detail after almost four years at Tandon.

“[Sustainability] should be an important topic mentioned in all labs, but it’s only mentioned in two out of 11 labs”, said Olivia Wu, a teaching assistant for EG1004, an introductory course required for all students pursuing degrees in engineering disciplines and computer science.

Many professors have also noticed this pattern of neglect. Miguel Modestino, an associate professor of chemical engineering, had always found ways to interweave sustainability into his lessons. While Modestino had been advocating for lessons in sustainability since 2017, it wasn’t until the fall 2022 semester that Tandon’s Sustainable Engineering Initiative kicked off. This program seeks to interweave sustainability across several curricula while doubling the amount of faculty focused on sustainability.

“I hope at one point we don’t have to call it the Sustainable Engineering Initiative, I hope that we could just call it engineering,” Modestino said.

But why can’t NYU promote sustainability in engineering while promoting SUE for those who are less engineering-inclined? Why can’t they coexist? If NYU wants to differentiate itself from other schools, it should promote smaller majors and not cap their enrollments.

WSN’s Opinion section strives to publish ideas worth discussing. The views presented in the Opinion section are solely the views of the writer.

Contact Elaine Ly at [email protected]